Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Legislating 'multibuy' won't address the root of the problem

I sincerely hope that the latest story in this morning's Times is a silly season wind up, yet I fear that it's really yet another of the scorched-earth type approach to policy that the Government is taking in the run up to the next election.

Apparently, the Government intends to threaten supermarkets with legislation unless they agree to stop selling two-for-one deals. Apparently, so the argument goes, this is about tackling the problem of food waste in the UK. As ever though this is one of those policy that desperately seeks to address a problem by failing to think a little further about what may have caused it.

I've posted about this before, but seeing as it's in the news again it's worth repeating. The giant food waste in the UK is not being caused by the supermarkets selling us two packets of bacon for the price of one, or three packets of fresh meat for a tenner. It's actually the unintended consequence of regulatory devices around food that infantilised a nation to the point that the regulation make individuals decisions for them.

If you're wondering what I am referring too, it's that little thing called the "Use by date" on perishable products. That is why so many people throw away food without eating it today, because the little label no longer provides advice on when something ought to be eaten before, rather it gives an order to the consumer, do not eat this after this date. The result is that people no longer look at food, or smell food, to establish whether it is good or bad.

Instead they just chuck it away and err on the side of regulatory caution. Yet here we are now, wondering why we throw so much away. In the pursuit of paternalistic nannying over individuals making an educated decision about whether food is OK to eat, we have created a throwaway nation that just follows the order that the little regulatory required label tells them.

So, as is typical of Government, the cry goes up "something must be done!", and, in the case of the current Government, rather than looking at the problem and wondering why people throw things away so much, they look at the supermarkets and blame them for selling the people too much. The answer to regulation is yet more regulation, it's the only way! If that means Government interference in the running of a business and the prices they can charge then so be it!

We've been in that place before where price control is directed by Government. The difference now is that rather than it being used in some sort of way designed, or intended to manage the economy of the nation, now it is being touted as a way of changing behaviour. Yet the behaviour itself is something that has been created by a reduction in the knowledge of the nation about food and what should and should not be eaten.

Take fresh meat for example. A piece of beef will discolour over time, if you cook it properly though you're not going to kill you or the others you may be dishing it up too. What about potatoes? They last for bloody ages. True they might sprout a little, but you can still cook them and eat them long past a "Use by date". Cheddar cheese can go mouldy and hard. You cut it off.

We don;t need yet more legislation, or pressure form Government to interfere in the price of the food we buy. We need to educate people about food again. We need people to start to smell what they're eating and make judgements on that. You don't need a label to tell you when the milk is off, you just need your nose.

Update: Melanie Reid in the Times is my new Goddess because she "gets it" too.

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